Note: ‘Classic’ is a pretty subjective term, when I use it here I mean to say: monsters that have survived through the editions of D&D that I think are cool. In this series of articles I look at the development of a classic monster over time and try to add a ‘crunchy’ piece of my own to the creature’s canon.
I’m posting this second installment of Classic Monsters as part of The Going Last Gaming Podcast’s May of the Dead blog carnival. There has been a shameful shortage of undead on Ménage à Monster, and the blog carnival seemed like the perfect opportunity to rectify that (and a great excuse to write another article in this series – the eye of the deep was getting pretty lonely).
I first encountered the coffer corpse lurking in the pages of the Fiend Folio and was instantly drawn to the fantastic Russ Nicholson illustration (click on the images to view full size). While the coffer corpse doesn’t get the same kind of fan recognition as the death knight (also introduced in Fiend Folio), I’ve always felt its low power level and unique mechanics gave it a certain charm. Like the Monster Manual’s vampire and mummy, the coffer corpse was also one of the few undead creatures in the game whose background jived with the mythology of the restless dead in horror films. While arguably a little obscure, the coffer corpse’s great mechanics, art and story combine to make the monster a classic.
Like many of the monsters in the Fiend Folio, the coffer corpse first saw print in the pages of White Dwarf as part of the ongoing Fiend Factory column (issue 8, 1978). In its infancy White Dwarf was a general gaming magazine with a focus on D&D, which makes sense given that Games Workshop (the company that produces the magazine) was at that time the UK distributer of the D&D game. Since the AD&D Monster Manual had only just been published in the UK, the creatures in the Fiend Factory column were created for the OD&D game.
The White Dwarf version of the coffer corpse sets out the parameters for all of the incarnations of the monster to follow. Cursed to undeath by incomplete or botched funeral rites (or as the author puts it, when a corpse fails to return to its ‘maker’), these animate corpses are often found floating on waylaid grave barges. The coffer corpse attacks by choking the life out of its victims, and can only be harmed by magic weapons (which inflict half damage). If the creature is struck with a normal weapon, it falls to the ground, apparently destroyed, only to rise up a round later in a display so horrible NPCs must succeed at a save vs. fear or flee in terror (the editor, Don Turnbull, notes at the end of the entry that this is probably an error and that PCs should also have to save vs. fear as well).
The coffer corpse was created by Simon Eaton, a name I’m not familiar with, as the only other credit I can find attributed to him is the witherweed (also featured in the Fiend Folio).
The coffer corpse was given an AD&D makeover for its inclusion in the Fiend Folio (and D&D canon). Its origins remained unchanged but a few of the monsters abilities were tweaked. Magic weapons do full damage to this version of the coffer corpse, and it falls to the ground if it is hit for 6 or more points of mundane weapon damage (instead of the ambiguous “if struck on the head” of the previous version). When the coffer corpse reanimates, all who are in melee must save vs. fear, not just NPCs. Additionally, the strangulation attack of the coffer corpse is upgraded from a simple 1d6 attack to one that inflicts automatic constriction damage each round, which is especially deadly since “nothing will release the grasp of the coffer corpse once it has locked its hands in place.”
The coffer corpse next appears in 2e’s Fiend Folio Appendix for the Monstrous Compendium. While generally identical to its 1e incarnation, most of its abilities are expanded and explored in greater detail: this coffer corpse has resistance to some weapon types (magic slashing weapons inflict normal damage with no bonus, blunt weapons inflict full damage and piercing weapons inflict half damage), and it is possible to break free of its strangling grip (but with a strength of 20 it’s still very difficult).
The most important addition to the coffer corpse in 2e is an attempt to utilize the creature’s origins as a way for clever players to defeat it: “If the unfinished death ritual which binds the coffer corpse to undeath can be completed, the creature will be released and effectively destroyed.” The mechanics of how players might go about discovering and acting on this information is left to the DM’s discretion (and this bit is buried in the habitat/society section of the write-up), which is too bad since I think this is where the coffer corpse’s true potential as a classic monster lies.
The coffer corpse never saw an official release for 3e. The Fiend Folio is generally regarded as a mixed bag and, in an effort to excise some of D&D’s sillier monsters from the game (the flumph is almost a clichéd example), many great monsters from this book, including the coffer corpse, were not updated for this edition of the game. However, Necromancer Games included the coffer corpse in their Tome of Horrors book, which updated just about every monster from 1e that WOTC had left behind (an admirable effort – though I think the carbuncle should have been abandoned to the dustbin of history). This version is more or less a direct translation of the coffer corpse from the Fiend Folio for 3e rules (damage reduction instead of immunity to normal weapons, and standard grab and constrict rules for the coffer corpse’s strangulation). It is a solid adaptation but, by sticking so closely to its 1e incarnation, I think it was a missed opportunity to expand and clarify the ‘unfinished funeral rite’ that the 2e version touched on (also, why they maintained the 25% chance for the coffer corpse to wield a weapon from previous editions is a mystery to me – the fact that the monster strangles people to death is what makes it interesting).
Not having a memorable appearance in 3e, and with 4e’s proliferation of low level skeleton and zombie breeds, it is hardly surprising the coffer corpse is absent from this edition. I do think that 4e’s skill challenge mechanic is particularly well suited to simulate the pitched struggle of a Cleric trying to complete funeral rites while the undead monster strangles her companion, which makes the coffer corpse the perfect candidate for entry into 4e’s canon.
Barred entry into the afterlife by incomplete funeral rites, the coffer corpse is cursed to a restless eternity, its only desire to squeeze the hated spark of life from anything that crosses its path.
Religion DC 15: Although they superficially resemble zombies, coffer corpses aren’t animated through necromantic rituals, but are created as a result of a divine curse. Their deathlike grip is exceptionally strong, making escape all but impossible once the coffer corpse has wrapped its bony fingers around your throat.
Religion DC 20: Cursed by an incomplete funeral ritual, a coffer corpse is difficult to destroy, often springing back to life only moments after being felled. Only by completing the creature’s burial rites can the curse be lifted and the tortured soul granted peace.
Coffer corpses can be encountered floating aimlessly in a waylaid funeral barge, slumped over a half dug grave, or lying in a coffin awaiting the completion of an interment ritual that never comes to pass. They are often part of a group of undead, created as part of the larger tragedy that interrupted the creature’s funeral.
Coffer Corpses in Combat
Every moment of existence is torture for a coffer corpse, so these undead monsters fight without regard for their own well-being. Even as they strangle and destroy they often liplessly whisper for release in their victim’s ear.
For those looking for a classic interpretation of the coffer corpse, Necromancer Games has updated their 3e book Tome of Horrors Complete, and the coffer corpse, for the Pathfinder game (and since its part of the OGL you can get this version at the Pathfinder System Resource Document). If you like the ideas in my 4e version of the monster though, I have used it as the blueprint for this Pathfinder translation of the coffer corpse that builds on the creature’s 2e presentation. The flavour text and lore from the 4e monster are system neutral enough to be used as is.